- Category : Actor
- Type : MGP
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Contagion 1
John Sidney Blyth, better known as John Barrymore, was an American actor of stage and screen. He first gained fame as a handsome stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in groundbreaking portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in various genres in both the silent and sound eras. Barrymore's personal life has been the subject of much writing before and since his death in 1942. Today John Barrymore is known mostly for his portrayal of Hamlet and for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and Don Juan (1926), the first ever feature length movie to use a Vitaphone sound-on-film soundtrack.
The most prominent member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, and was the paternal grandfather of Drew Barrymore.
Barrymore was born in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother. His parents were Maurice Barrymore and Georgie Drew Barrymore. His maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew (aka Mrs Drew), a prominent and well-respected 19th century actress and theater manager, who instilled in him and his siblings the ways of acting and theatre life. His uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew.
Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth, spent on his father's rambling estate on Long Island. He and brother Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black servant named Edward. John was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught entering a bordello.
Barrymore studied to be an artist and worked on New York newspapers before deciding to go into the family business as an actor. He made his stage debut in 1903. He first appeared on the London stage two years later.
While still a teenager, he courted showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901 and 1902. For years, rumors swirled that Nesbit had become pregnant and that Barrymore had arranged an abortion, disguised as an operation for "appendicitis." In 1906, another Nesbit lover, famed architect Stanford White, was murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw. Barrymore was subpoenaed to testify at Thaw's trial in defense hopes of showing that Nesbit had a history of "immorality." Both Barrymore and Nesbit denied the abortion story under oath.
Barrymore was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck. He had starred in a production of The Dictator and was booked to tour Australia with it. Since he loathed this prospect, he hid, spending the next few days drinking at the home of a friend on Van Ness Avenue. During this drinking jag, he worked out a plan to exploit the earthquake for his own ends. He decided to present himself as an on-the-scene "reporter," making up virtually everything he claimed to have witnessed. Twenty years later, Barrymore finally confessed to his deception, but by then, he was so famous that the world merely smiled indulgently at his admission." His account was written as a "letter to my sister Ethel." He was sure the letter would be "worth at least a hundred dollars." In terms of publicity it earned Barrymore a thousand times that amount.
Barrymore was also great friends and a drinking companion with baseball star Mike Donlin. Donlin eventually appeared in two of Barrymore's silent films, Raffles The Amateur Cracksman and The Sea Beast.
Early theatre and film career
Barrymore delivered some of the most critically acclaimed performances in theatre and film history and was widely regarded as the screen's greatest performer during a movie career spanning 25 years as a leading man in more than 60 films.
Barrymore specialized in light comedies until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Thereafter Barrymore created a sensation in John Galsworthy's Justice (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt and directed by Ben Iden Payne. It would be Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs. He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy's Redemption (1918) and The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange's play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances and then took to London in 1925.
Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913, but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A. J. Raffles in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926). When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the big Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI, part 3 in Warner Brothers' musical revue The Show of Shows ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all"), and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley's (1930), Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Grand Hotel (1932) (in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel), Dinner at Eight (1933), Topaze (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). He worked opposite many of the screen's foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor at Law based on Elmer Rice's 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer . . . but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."
Barrymore collapsed on his boat, The Mariner, in 1929 off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores, requiring admittance into doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from his consumption of bad and sometimes nearly poisonous illegal alcohol during the period of Prohibition in the United States, or possibly from early onset of the then-mysterious Alzheimer's Disease.
He gave a bravura Shakespeare performance, as an overage Mercutio, in the 1936 MGM film Romeo and Juliet, and the following year put in a first class performance as a Svengali-type character in MGM's Maytime with Jeanette MacDonald, the top-grossing film worldwide of that year and regarded as one of the best film musicals of the 1930s: "Altogether, it's possible that this is one of the best and most competently handled operettas that Hollywood has turned out."
In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in some of Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and offered one last bravura dramatic turn in RKO's 1939 feature The Great Man Votes. After that, his remaining screen roles were broad caricatures of himself, as in The Great Profile (with "Oh, Johnny, How You Can Love" as his theme music) and World Premiere. In the otherwise undistinguished Playmates with band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore recited the "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet. In 1937, Barrymore visited India, the land where his father had been born. In his private life, during his last years, he was married to his fourth and last wife, Elaine Barrie, a union that turned out to be disastrous. His brother Lionel tried to help him find a small place near Lionel's house and to convince him to stay away from impetuous marriages, which usually ended in divorce and put a strain on his once large income.
He was known for calling people by nicknames of his own creation. Dolores Costello was known in his writing alternately as "Small Cat," "Catkiwee," "Winkie," and "Egg." He called Lionel "Mike," and Ethel called John "Jake." He called Blanche Oelrichs "Fig" and called their daughter Diana "Treepeewee" who as an infant wet the bed sheets, which Blanche made John change.
Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and died in his hospital room, May 29, 1942. His dying words were "Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him." Gene Fowler attributes different dying words to Barrymore in his biography Good Night, Sweet Prince. According to Fowler, John Barrymore roused as if to say something to his brother Lionel; Lionel asked him to repeat himself, and he simply replied, "You heard me, Mike."
According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's body before burial, and left his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from The Cock and Bull Bar. This was re-created in the movie W.C. Fields and Me. Other accounts of this classic Hollywood tale substitute actor Peter Lorre in the place of Walsh, but Walsh himself tells the story in Richard Schickel's 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies. However, Barrymore's great friend Gene Fowler denied the story, stating that he and his son held vigil over the body at the funeral home until the funeral and burial.
He was buried in East Los Angeles, at Calvary Cemetery, on June 2. Surviving family members in attendance were his brother Lionel and his daughter Diana. Ex-wife Elaine also attended. Among his active pallbearers were Gene Fowler, John Decker, W.C. Fields, Herbert Marshall, Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer, and David O. Selznick. Years later, Barrymore's son John had the body reinterred at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, John Barrymore has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard.
Though both his brother and sister won Academy Awards, the only award John ever received for his screen work was from legendary Rudolph Valentino in 1925 for Beau Brummel. Valentino created an Award in his own name and felt that his fellow actors should receive accolades for their screen work. Presciently Valentino's initiative influenced the Oscar in 1927.
Barrymore had been a friend and contemporary (and drinking companion) of his fellow Philadelphian W. C. Fields. In the 1976 film W.C. Fields and Me, Barrymore was played by Jack Cassidy. Cassidy, like Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. idolized Barrymore. Barrymore was also portrayed by Christopher Plummer (who was a friend of Diana Barrymore) in the 1996 two-man show Barrymore, later filmed in 2012 and by Errol Flynn in the 1958 biographical film about Diana entitled Too Much, Too Soon.
He is mentioned in the lyrics of the song "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)" by Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin, written in 1929, which became the theme song of the Apollo Theater in New York, and which was recorded by many artists including Doris Day in 1950.
In 1953, the comic book artist Graham Ingels (signing his name "Ghastly") used stills from Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde silent film as reference for a homicidal maniac in the comic book story "Horror We? How's Bayou?" which appeared as the cover story for The Haunt of Fear #17, published by E.C. Comics, and introduced by The Old Witch.
In addition, his ghost is a major character in Paul Rudnik's comedy I Hate Hamlet.
A character based on Barrymore, an unnamed dog, appears in three Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons alongside the Goofy Gophers: The Goofy Gophers, A Ham in a Role, and Two Gophers from Texas.
He is featured in Queen's hit music video Under Pressure as Mr. Hyde in his silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, New Jersey, successfully petitioned the Borough to change the name of the intersection of Main Street and Central Road to John Barrymore Way on February 15 (Barrymore's birthday) in 2010. This was the site of the old Buckheister's Hotel where in 1900 the then 18-year-old John Barrymore made his stage debut in the play A Man of the World, directed by his father Maurice Barrymore for a Fort Lee Fire House fundraiser. Both of his siblings have historic sites named after them, Ethel the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York which she opened in 1928 and Lionel a college theatre in Wisconsin.
Barrymore's granddaughter Drew Barrymore, the daughter of his son John Drew Barrymore, became a famous child actress in the 1980s and continues to be a critically acclaimed box-office success.